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How to Help Your Kids Navigate Friendships

When my two boys were in elementary school, one of them called an older sister a name. While this wasn’t unusual in a household with two boys and two girls close in age, the word shocked me. I knew the offender had no idea what the word meant, so I asked them where they’d heard it. Turns out, a boy in the same grade as my oldest son had been using some rather salty language around them when playing outside after school. After some sleuthing, I determined the boy in question knew the words weren’t right because he didn’t utter them at school or on the bus, so I was left with a dilemma—do I simply ban my boys from playing with him, or do I address the issue with the child directly?

I chose the latter, and the next time the boy knocked on our door asking if the boys could play, I stepped onto our front porch and had a conversation with him that went something like this (and I’m changing his name for obvious reasons).

“Hi, Joe. I heard from my boys you’ve been using inappropriate language when playing with them. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Joe shuffles his feet but nods.

“I also hear you don’t use that language on the bus or at school.”

Another nod from Joe.

“Here’s the deal. If you want to continue playing with my boys, then you need to not use that language around them. Do you think you can do that?”

Joe agreed, and I called the boys to play. To my knowledge, Joe reigned in his language, and all three had a great time playing together.

I use this story to illustrate one way to handle what we might label as inappropriate friendships for our children. We want to protect our kids, but we also want them to learn how to navigate finding and making friends. In this article, we’ll focus on what to do when your kids have friendship troubles in two areas—when we think a friend isn’t a good influence and when a friendship falls apart.

Inappropriate Friends

As my illustration shows, sometimes our kids encounter other children who don’t have the same values or upbringing. This can expose our kids to foul language, books, music, and movies we might not have wanted them to experience. Sometimes, a child who was a good friend in elementary school can become a not-as-great influence in middle or high school.

Here are three ways to handle a child whose friends might not be the best in our book.

Have an open door policy.

When I was a kid, my house was the place everyone gravitated to for playing in our yard or inside in the large attic-like playroom. I’m not sure why my house became the default play place, but I think it had a lot to do with the fact my mother didn’t mind upwards of a dozen kids tramping upstairs to put on plays on rainy days or jumping out of a tree on a swing in the backyard.

As the mother of four kids who frequently kicked them outside to play all year round, our house was the one neighborhood kids came to play. Kids always knocked on our door asking if one of my children could play, and I welcomed the disruption. This allowed me to know the kids by name and to see how they fit into the pack of kids. Part of the reason for our home’s popularity probably stemmed from the fact we had four kids, but also because I didn’t mind the chaos of additional children in our yard or sometimes in our house.

By allowing children to feel welcome at your home, you are able to learn about them and see how they interact with your own kids. This provides a glimpse into friendships you won’t get if your kids spend time with friends away from home. Making your house a destination starts in elementary school and grows as your children age.

Talk to the friends.

This should begin in elementary school, when you ask your children’s friends simple questions, like where they went on vacation, what books they like to read, things like that. Engage them in conversation while they’re waiting for your kid to get his shoes on, for example.

The importance of this was brought home to me a few years ago when my oldest daughter, a high school senior at the time, relayed what one of her close friends said. When this friend frequently came by our house, I would talk to her, sometimes about a book or movie, sometimes about something she was doing, sometimes about nothing in particular. This friend told my daughter how much she appreciated that I wasn’t grilling her with questions about her schoolwork or her plans for college like other parents did.

That has stuck with me, and while you shouldn’t try to be their friend—that comes when they are adults after high school—you should be attentive to them as a person. You might be surprised at how they react when you treat them like someone you’re genuinely interested in.

Invite your children’s friends to dinner.

This is a natural extension of the open door policy, but giving your children leave to invite kids over to eat with us is another excellent way to get to know them. Making them feel welcome to share a meal with you can also help your child figure out things about their friend.

Here’s one example. My parents fostered when I was a teenager, and one of their first placements was for a teen girl a couple of years older than me. Joan (not her real name) was dating someone called Will (not his real name either), whom my parents felt wasn’t a good influence on Joan. Rather than forbid Joan from seeing Will, they encouraged her to invite him over to dinner. He came, and everyone had a nice meal, but shortly after that, Will and Joan broke up. I’m sure there were other reasons behind the breakup, but I’m also sure it happened sooner because my parents welcomed Will into their home rather than barring him.

Our children and teens will make wise friend choices and questionable friend choices. The more we can express genuine interest in them and allow for playing, parties, and meals to happen in our home under our supervision and interaction, the more information we’ll have about these kids and our own children. We’ll also be able to have more in-depth conversations about any troubling behavior we witness firsthand. And because our kids know we care about their friends, they will be more apt to listen to our concerns.

When a Friend Moves On

When I was in seventh grade, I lost my best friend. This happened partly because we now went to different schools, but the loss hurt. We had been inseparable throughout our elementary school years, living within a block of each other. It was difficult to lose such a close friend, but it wouldn’t be the first time a friend of mine had moved on and left me behind.

Losing a friend hurts, but your heart hurts even more when it’s not because they moved out of town but because they decide to sever the friendship chord for reasons that aren’t always known or explained. Here are five ways to help your child recover from a lost friendship.

Remind them of the seasonality of life. The older your child, the more able they will grasp this concept, but even little kids recognize the seasons. Sometimes, friendships fizzle because one or the other has moved into a different life season. I still occasionally miss friendships I had in various life seasons but also treasure those moments we did have.

Learn to let go. This is a hard one for me. I tend to be the person who reaches out to keep in touch with friends, but there does come a time when I realize I need to stop because the other person either doesn’t respond or doesn’t seem to be able to make time for me anymore. Helping our kids understand it’s okay to let go of a friend when circumstances conspire to prevent that friendship from continuing.

Do some self-examination. Maybe there was something you did to drive a friend away. Some kids will dwell too much on what was wrong with them, but this introspection can be done healthily. The key is not to focus too much on themselves and to recognize the fluidity of most friendships.

Help them to remember the good. It can hurt when a friend suddenly ghosts you. When that happens, letting the exit taint the entire friendship can be tempting. Guiding our children or teens to recall the positives of the friendship can help them heal from how it ended.

Give them guidance on how to end a friendship. Sometimes, it becomes obvious it’s time to stop being friends. This can happen for various reasons as interests change as kids grow. It’s not always a bad thing to stop being friends with someone. But kids and teens often don’t know how to say goodbye in a way that minimizes the hurt. Helping them with the language and the courage to follow through is important.

Friendships can be fraught with danger and filled with joy, sometimes all at the same time. Use these suggestions as you help your children navigate their friendships.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund

Sarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.

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